In Interpreting A Label, Part I , I introduced the idea of learning to speak ‘Nutrition-ese’, and outlined the terms ‘organic’ and ‘natural’. In Interpreting A Label, Part II , I covered a multitude of other product terminology, and concluded the lesson in label lingo. Here in the final installment of this series, I offer my analysis of the Nutrition Facts Panel. I do suggest that you read Part I and Part II before continuing with this post.
For many people, the Nutrition Facts Panel reads like a fractured formula. Loosely arranged fragments of seemingly unrelated figures, it is difficult to synthesize as a cohesive informative unit. Instead of offering actual understanding, it ends up used and abused as a shortcut to fuel our phobias and neuroses. Some people, for example, hone in on fat content and ignore all else. Others scan for the numbers on carbohydrates, concerned with the dietary violation of a particular morsel. Still others might emphasize sugar, or sodium, or simple calorie count. We all have our interests (issues?), but this hyper-focus can be harmful when it comes at the exclusion of the whole perspective. The perspective of the ‘whole food’, that is.
Food cannot be reduced to a collection of allowances and untouchables, of ‘good’ components and ‘bad’ components. Pre-made foods especially, need to be evaluated within the context of their entirety. Instead of picking apart isolated nutritive aspects, I propose a comprehensive approach to the Nutrition Facts Panel. In considering the collection of data, the focus moves from a random number, to a ratio. You’ll encounter a spectrum of ratios, in fact.
A number is severe, but a ratio implies balance. In food as in life, the healthy path is a product of balance. For example, higher fat content may be fine if it accompanies substantial protein. Sodium may not be so menacing when clinging to the coattails of a vitamin- and iron-rich broccoli bisque. And although they’re carrying as many calories as your favorite tiramisu, cashews are packing proteins, omega 3’s, fiber, and antioxidants that your dessert could only dream of. It would be ridiculous to disregard each of these relationships, discarding the cashews just because of their high caloric value.
Once you are in a balanced mindset, you are ready to honestly and healthily evaluate your foods. Try to make your selections based on the series of interactions that are best representative of equilibrium. The discussion below will help you discern exactly what you are looking at. And lastly, remember that absolutely every single mark on that panel, every number and every last letter, including what is presented, what is omitted, and how it is displayed, was decided and is regulated by the FDA. Here is the breakdown, reading from left to right, top to bottom:
Serving Size: This is the amount of food that all of the following numbers will be referenced to. Serving sizes are standardized, often leading to illogical results. For example, a single-serving product (like an energy bar) may contain ‘2 servings’. Always be mindful of the intended serving size, because it will probably differ from what you will actually be eating (who eats 5 crackers, anyways?)
Servings Per Container: This tells you how many of those serving sizes are included in the entire package, which can help your calculations when you just ate the entire bag of Tings.
Calories Per Serving: A calorie is a unit of measuring energy. Specifically, it is the amount of energy necessary to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by 1 degree Celsius. So, the amount of calories listed here, is the amount of energy you will receive from each serving. Not demons, just energy, dig?
Calories From Fat, Per Serving: This is here because Americans are lipophobic. Just remember relativity and your ratios.
% Daily Value: These numbers, represented in percentages, have been calculated based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Most people’s meal plan fluctuates quite a bit day-to-day, but daily value percentages can be good reference points. Use them when deriving your ratios or comparing two products. *Note: these numbers do not refer to the percentage of X in a serving size.
Total Fat: There are three types of fat: saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, and polyunsaturated fat. Saturated fat is always listed separately because in the past it was thought to be the most harmful; recent evidence pretty conclusively demonstrates that trans fats, which can be either mono- or polyunsaturated, are extremely detrimental to overall health. In general, there is a lot of fear and a lot of confusion surrounding fat. My advice is this: If you are eating a balanced, varied, and vegan whole foods diet, you shouldn’t ever have to worry about fat. If you are eating a balanced, varied, and vegan whole foods diet, don’t even bother looking at it.
Saturated Fat: Saturated fat is linked to high blood cholesterol and heart disease. But again, if you are eating a whole foods vegan diet, it is pretty difficult to get too much saturated fat.
Cholesterol: If the serving size contains less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol, it will be rounded down to 0%. If you then eat multiple servings, you may unknowingly ingest cholesterol, so be aware of that. But, cholesterol is only found in animal products. Vegans do not consume cholesterol.
Sodium: Some people have issues with salt and high blood pressure. Salt can also increase dehydration and bloating, which may cause some people avoid it. For most people, salt isn’t such a big deal. Don’t eat excessive quantities, and you should be fine. Full disclosure: I love salt. I am a salt fiend.
Total Carbohydrates: There are three types of carbohydrates: simple carbohydrates (like sugars), complex carbohydrates (starches), and fiber. Simple carbohydrates, like those found in refined flours and sugary products, are nutritionally void – worthless. Complex carbohydrates, found in whole grains, are nutritionally rich. When assessing a product, look at the fiber-to-sugar ratio. You want the most fiber with the least sugar.
Dietary Fiber: Fiber is indigestible plant foods, and there are two types – soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber is metabolized with a variety of beneficial results. Insoluble fiber attracts water and adds ‘bulk’ as it passes through the system (this is the one that helps you poo). The FDA has determined that most Americans do not get adequate dietary fiber. Both soluble and insoluble fibers are excellent for you and you cannot get enough of these!
Sugars: Some sugars, like in fruit, are natural and, well, wonderful. Try to avoid refined sugars, like candy or syrup. Sometimes sugar is psychologically or emotionally necessary. It happens. Don’t beat yourself up over occasional sugar.
Protein: According to the FDA, most Americans get more than enough protein. This includes vegans and vegetarians. Therefore, there is no daily value listed.
Vitamins and Minerals: The FDA has determined that most Americans do not get enough Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron, which is why these are shown. Veggies high in Vitamin A include carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens. Edibles high in Vitamin C include citrus, berries, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. Foods high in Calcium include seaweeds, nuts and seeds, beans, and leafy greens. Grub high in Iron includes legumes, beans, peas, and leafy greens. See a trend? Eat your greens!
The * Disclaimer: Here, the label reminds you that all of the percentages listed above are calculated for a 2,000-calorie diet. A helpful project is to keep a food journal for a week or so, and calculate your average daily intake, so that you can better understand these percentages as they relate to your, specific, intake.
The Footnote: The large footnote at the bottom of labels is not required, and usually only appears on bigger products. You may have noticed that it never changes – it does not relate to the specific product. This footnote just recaps the recommended guidelines for a balanced diet, as agreed-upon by various health agencies.
Calories Per Gram in the Footnote: Different nutrients contain different amounts of calories per gram of matter. Energy wise, a gram of wheat =/= a gram of walnuts. Fats contain 9 calories per gram, carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram, and proteins contain 4 calories per gram.
And with that, so ends my translation of the Nutrition Facts Panel. If you still have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments, and as always I’ll do my best to find your answer!